A Kenyan Ecologist’s Crusade to Save Her Country’s Wildlife

Jan 26, 2021 | News

By Jon Lee Anderson – The New Yorker

To get her fellow-citizens to care about threatened animals, Paula Kahumbu became a TV star.

eventy miles southwest of Nairobi, the Loita Hills climb toward the sky from the red stone cleft of the Great Rift Valley. Situated beside the Serengeti and the Maasai Mara, the Loitas provide a vital watershed for migratory animals on the plains below. Forest pigs, bushbuck, black-and-white colobus monkeys, leopards, and Cape buffalo find refuge there, along with elephants that come to graze when the plains are dry. The Loita forest, one of Kenya’s last surviving stands of old-growth cedar, is sacred to the Maasai people, who call it Naimina Enkiyio—the Forest of the Lost Child, after the legend of a girl who followed wayward calves into the trees and never returned. Some twenty-five thousand Maasai live in settlements scattered through the lower valleys, where they herd goats and cows in sweeping meadows reminiscent of the Rocky Mountain foothills. The Loitas, rich in medicinal herbs and plants, are an irreplaceable resource for the laibon, the spiritual leaders of the Maasai.

Last fall, a laibon named Parmuat Koikai spent several days guiding Paula Kahumbu, a Kenyan conservationist, around the Loitas. Parmuat, a lithe man of fifty-five with a shaved head and drooping holes pierced in his earlobes, wore a traditional red shuka cloth and carried a rungu, a short club that Maasai warriors use for hunting. Kahumbu, though, was mostly interested in his defense of the local animals.

Kahumbu had come to the Loitas to shoot an episode of “Wildlife Warriors,” a popular television show in which she travels to wild places and meets Kenyans working to save endangered animals. An ecologist who has turned to storytelling, Kahumbu believes that one of the biggest threats to the country’s wildlife is that most of its citizens don’t see themselves as stakeholders in conservation efforts. “The problem is that Kenya is losing its wilderness, and conservation is not something Black Kenyans do—it’s a white thing,” she told me recently. The goal of her show, she explained, is “to have people of color talking about animals, handling them, and expressing compassion for wildlife.”

The daughter of a white Englishwoman and a Kikuyu man, Kahumbu is fifty-four, with an open, friendly face and an impish laugh. Her wardrobe is unself-conscious Outdoor Nerd: trekking shoes, baggy safari pants, a fly-fishing vest, a bright-colored bandanna holding back unruly hair. A bird or plant identification manual is invariably crammed into one of her many pockets. Onscreen, she projects the inexhaustible curiosity of a Kenyan David Attenborough. (“I’d never heard of a solar-powered G.P.S. on the back of a bird before! But how does it work?”) Each episode of her show focusses on Kenyans whom Kahumbu has selected as Wildlife Warrior “heroes.” One centered on amiable middle-aged women who work as elephant researchers at Amboseli National Park; others featured a voluble expert on vulturine guinea fowl and a young man who verified the existence of a rare black leopard in his area by rigging a nocturnal camera trap.

For the Loita episode, the hero was Parmuat, who had created a Maasai association to protect the forest. He told Kahumbu that the regional government was backing a plan to push a paved road through the Loitas, cutting the area in two. He and his fellow-laibon opposed the road, which they suspected was part of an effort by politicians and speculators to take over valuable parcels of land. A road would also bring outsiders, damaging the environment and rupturing the harmony of a place where the Maasai had lived since the nineteenth century. As it was, illegal cedar logging was encroaching on Naimina Enkiyio on all sides. Kahumbu feared the collapse of an ecosystem that supported countless species, many of them unknown to scientists but intimately familiar to people who for generations have used them for food and medicine. “Losing a place like the Loitas is like losing a treasure that we haven’t even realized that we have,” she said. “All that knowledge. That would be the greatest loss to Kenyans that I can think of.”

For decades, tourism has accounted for about a tenth of the Kenyan economy, largely driven by the country’s natural splendor. So many people come to see the Big Five—lions, leopards, rhinos, elephants, and buffalo—that in Kenya the minister of tourism and the minister of wildlife are the same person. But the wilderness is deteriorating, threatened by climate change and by an exploding human population. When I first visited, in 1971, seven years after Kenya won independence from Great Britain, it was a nation of eleven million. Nairobi was a city of half a million inhabitants, with flame trees lining the streets and lions prowling the near suburbs. It was a destination for hunters, who left town on safari and returned for Martinis and clean sheets; the unsuccessful ones bought leopard-tail hatbands from the hotel shops to take home. The herds of wildlife seemed too vast to disappear.

Kenya banned hunting in 1977, yet the threats to wildlife only grew. The population began surging, and by the mid-nineties the growth rate was among the highest in the world. Since independence, Kenya’s population has quintupled, to fifty-two million, and the U.N. estimates that it will reach ninety-five million by 2050. Nairobi is now a sprawling city of four and a half million. Right next to the downtown is the packed slum of Kibera, Africa’s largest informal urban settlement, with a population some fifty times as dense as London’s.

Since 2000, the government has pushed the country toward economic growth, with backing from the West and sweeping infrastructure deals with China. On visits in the past decade, I found Chinese contractors bulldozing Nairobi’s old colonial streets to construct freeways, which seemed to fill with gridlocked traffic as soon as they were built. The roads are lined with billboards advertising cell-phone data packages, new housing developments, and KFC dinner buckets. American-style malls have sprouted everywhere. When I visited this fall, bulldozers were uprooting century-old shade trees to make way for yet another overpass.

Fifty years ago, Kenya had a hundred and sixty thousand elephants. Today, there are thirty-five thousand. A population of twenty thousand black rhinos is down to about a thousand, and only two northern white rhinos remain. Lions, cheetahs, giraffes, hyenas, and wild dogs are all endangered. Those animals which poachers and cattle-herders have not killed off, using guns and snares and cheap poisons, are being wiped out by new roads, power lines, mushrooming towns, and overgrazed, shrinking rangelands.

Kenya has twenty-three national parks, but the habitat they offer is not enough to sustain the animals. In recent years, some of the indigenous communities that control much of the country’s undeveloped land have made leasehold agreements with conservation groups and private safari companies. These arrangements have helped protect an estimated sixty-five per cent of Kenya’s wildlife, while also aiding pastoralist groups like the Maasai. But they are precarious—a patchwork of thousands of contracts, each one subject to renegotiation whenever a local leader raises his rate or a nonprofit loses funding. Where they fail, the wilderness habitat will disappear, and the animals will, too.

In Nairobi, the renowned conservationist and paleoanthropologist Richard Leakey told me that he did not expect most of Kenya’s wild animals to survive past mid-century. “I am not persuaded of the prospects for wildlife unless something gives,” he said. “And I don’t see it.”

Leakey, the son of the paleoanthropologists Mary and Louis Leakey, has been at the center of Kenyan conservation for decades, and his pessimism has upset the community. Paula Kahumbu admires Leakey, but she thinks that his frustration is tinged with an increasing sense of his own mortality. At seventy-six, he has endured kidney and liver transplants, and lost both legs in a plane crash. “He is locking himself into a narrative of hopelessness and discouraging a huge number of conservationists,” Kahumbu said. “I fear his words give weight to decision-makers—people who, when they hear him, might well say, ‘Why fund conservation when it’s too late?’ I personally think he is out of touch with what Kenyans want, think, and aspire to. Over fifty per cent of Kenyans have watched my TV series. They support our campaigns, help us challenge the government, plant trees, defend parks and forests, and are starting conservation organizations of their own. I am aware of the challenges. Government is in the way. But we select our governments. So we have power.”

One morning, Kahumbu and her crew climbed to a meeting place high in the Loitas. Parmuat was waiting for them, wearing a hide around his neck and carrying a switch made from a cow’s tail; he had walked that morning from his village, an hour’s drive away. After a brief greeting, he led the group into a grove of Elgon olive and podo trees, stopping at a huge strangler fig, a tree as hefty and durable as a cathedral. Carrying a calabash full of milk, he walked slowly around the trunk, shaking its contents onto the bark and muttering an incantation. In Swahili, he explained to Kahumbu that he was blessing the tree and asking its permission to extract plants from the forest to make medicines.

In the effort to protect the forest, Parmuat was collaborating with Rob and Sarah O’Meara, a white couple in their fifties. The O’Mearas had moved to the area in 2014, after several years in the Maasai Mara, where they had set up one of the first wildlife conservancies. Sarah had known the Loitas intimately since childhood; her father, a Kenyan-born Englishman, had led safaris there, and had often taken her along.

When the O’Mearas arrived in the Loitas, the Maasai elders invited them to reclaim Sarah’s father’s old hunting camp. They found a spot next to a rushing stream and erected a minimally intrusive camp: a few tree houses, some tents, an open-air kitchen and living room. They hired Maasai as rangers, guides, and camp staff. Their visitors were mostly foreign bird-watchers and nature lovers, who were happy to pay generously to spend a week in an unspoiled setting.

If, like many of the O’Mearas’ clients, you set your baseline for wildlife in rural New Jersey or the outer suburbs of London, there was plenty to see. During the night I spent there, baboons marauded around the camp, bellowing and crashing through the trees. In the morning, Sarah explained that they were agitated by a leopard, which had been prowling the woods. In the forest, we were trailed by black-and-white colobus monkeys, which peered at us curiously as they leaped from branch to branch. But the O’Mearas were increasingly worried about the threats to wildlife. A few decades ago, Sarah told me, the forest was full of black rhinos, but they had long since fallen to poachers. Now animals were increasingly threatened by the development of their habitat—what conservationists refer to delicately as “human-animal conflict.”

In her TV show the ecologist Paula Kahumbu focusses on wildlife heroes.
In her TV show, the ecologist Paula Kahumbu focusses on wildlife “heroes.”Photograph by Khadija Farah for The New Yorker

One afternoon, Rob drove me up a ridge in his stripped-down Land Cruiser, with forest bushbuck scattering as we lumbered along the trail. From the crest, he pointed out an expanse of lowlands: the Serengeti, just over the border in Tanzania. In the other direction was the Maasai Mara. For aeons, in the East African wildlife migration, millions of wildebeest, zebra, and other animals moved from one range to the other; a smaller migration moved between the Maasai Mara and the Loita plains. In recent years, though, most of the open land had been sold off and fenced—using cedar illegally logged in the nearby forest—and the Loita migration had been halted.

Rob was conscious of the land’s precarity. He had grown up on a farm near Lake Nakuru, which once belonged to the aviator and author Beryl Markham. When he was in his twenties, his parents sold the land and moved away. Returning for a visit a few years later, he found that the farm had been subdivided into fenced plots; the forest that had spread beyond it was gone.

On the ridge, Rob drew my eye to some clearings and tin roofs glinting on a hilltop, and explained that the government was privatizing land across Kenya. The process was begun by the colonial British, and has persisted since independence. Known as adjudication, it has now extended to areas where humans and wildlife have lived alongside one another, without roads or fences, for thousands of years. Land that has always been held communally is split into individual plots—but the new owners often find that their parcels are not large enough to maintain their traditional way of life, so they sell to speculators or developers. For a herdsman who suddenly lacks access to a range, the offer of a few thousand dollars may seem reasonable; it’s enough to build a cinder-block house and buy a Chinese motorbike. But even a small bit of fencing—let alone a cement factory, as I saw at the edge of Chyulu Hills National Park—can disrupt habitat. Driving through the plains below the ridge, I had seen the last of the Loitas’ great migratory herds: three or four hundred animals, grazing aimlessly between the fences of a hundred-acre plot.

For conservationists, the challenge is to convince indigenous people that tourism and eco-business can earn them as much as selling their land or leasing it to commercial farmers. Parmuat’s community, where adjudication was still pending, favored a model that would keep most of the land in an unfenced wilderness trust, while providing income through leaseholds. But Maasai leaders were aware of the dangers.

Away from the cameras, I asked Parmuat if he thought the Loita forest would survive. To answer, he said, he would need to undertake the laibon ritual of “throwing the stones.” He drew geometric figures on his face and arms with white paint, and then retrieved his charms—quartzes and smooth river stones, as well as cowrie shells and a few old coins—from a cow’s horn. He tossed them onto a cloth, moving them around deliberately. The answer, he told me, was effectively “Ask again later.” As outsiders came into the Loitas, the stones would warn against bad people, and tell him which medicine from the forest could stop them.

Kahumbu asked Parmuat if he could discern anything about her son, who lives in New Hampshire and works as a cybersecurity specialist. After consulting the stones again, he said, “Your son is fine, but has problems with his left foot.” Kahumbu was astonished. She told me later, “I don’t know how Parmuat could have known, but my son broke his left foot about ten years ago, and still has trouble with it. It’s full of pins.”

Parmuat asked if she had any other questions. “How are things at home?” she asked, meaning her house in Nairobi. The laibon threw the stones again and told her, “Everything is fine at home, but you’re never there.”

Paula Kahumbu grew up, with eight siblings, on a compound in Karen, a Nairobi suburb named for the Danish author Karen Blixen, who had owned a farm there fifty years earlier. In Blixen’s time, the ranch overlooked bushland, where wild game roamed. Over the years, it had been subdivided, and newcomers had poured in, building large homes on twenty-acre estates. By the early seventies, when Kahumbu was a girl, Karen was no longer a wilderness, but it remained full of towering trees and expansive gardens. Leopards and monkeys were as common as sparrows.

One day, Paula and her brother were playing along one of the lanes that bisected the neighborhood, when her brother, who had a slingshot, spotted a rock hyrax—a small, fuzzy mammal that looks like a woodchuck but is related to the elephant. Just then, a car pulled over beside them. “In it was a white man,” Paula recalled. “He dissuaded us from disturbing the hyrax by telling us all about them, how amazing they were. He informed us that he lived in the estate right next door, and that whenever we wanted to know anything about animals we should come and ask him.”

The man was Richard Leakey, and Kahumbu and her siblings began visiting him. “We’d go over with mice and birds and snakes we’d caught and had a kind of competition to see if there were any animals he didn’t know about,” she said. “He would always encourage us to put them back in the wild.” Kahumbu, inspired, resolved to be a veterinarian when she grew up. But her father left the family when she was in her teens, and her mother, struggling to make ends meet, made her promise to go to secretarial school instead.

When she was sixteen, Kahumbu won a place in an expedition organized by a British academic organization. “They invited sixty kids to apply and put all of us on a hill for two days to see how we fared, and ten of us were selected,” she said. The winners spent a month trekking through the remote north of Kenya, led by a Samburu man who had guided the legendary British explorer Wilfred Thesiger. “We were a bunch of kids on their own, climbing rain-forested mountains and walking across desert, and we covered over six hundred miles on foot,” Kahumbu said. She was assigned to collect earwigs, wood lice, and scorpions. “I totally loved it,” she said, laughing. “But at times it was very dangerous. Lions followed us. We almost got washed out by a flash flood, and, once, we ran out of water. It was high adventure, and I realized that I could never be a secretary.”

Kahumbu began attending typing classes, but after three months she “ran away,” she said. The first thing she did was to go see Leakey, who had become the director of the National Museums of Kenya. Kahumbu told him that she wanted to be a wildlife ranger. Instead, he took her to the Institute of Primate Research, an offshoot of the museums, and asked the director to give her an internship.

As the Kenyan government encourages the privatization of land that has long been held communally animal habitats are...
As the Kenyan government encourages the privatization of land that has long been held communally, animal habitats are breaking apart. At Ol Kinyei Conservancy, a Maasai community leased a vast tract of land to conservationists, allowing elephants to roam freely.Photograph by Khadija Farah for The New Yorker

Kahumbu was disturbed by the thought of subjecting monkeys to tests, and the work was unglamorous: “cleaning test tubes, cleaning monkey teeth, collecting and analyzing urine samples.” But she loved being around the monkeys. “They all had tattooed identification numbers on their inner thighs, but I got to know each monkey by face,” she said. She brought them peanuts, and they learned to search her pockets and her boots for hidden snacks. “I often got groomed, and gave grooming to the monkeys in return,” she said. “I think I was the only person there they didn’t fear.”

After a year, the Kenyan government gave her a scholarship to attend college in England, and she spent three years studying biology and geography at the University of Bristol. In her last month, she got a letter from Leakey, urging her to continue studying. “He wanted me to think of myself as the scientist, not the scientist’s assistant,” Kahumbu said. She spent a year and a half at the University of Florida in Gainesville, where she wrote her master’s thesis on how logging was devastating trees that rare red colobus monkeys depended upon for survival.

The thesis was informed by work that she had done in the Tana River Primate National Reserve, where the American conservation biologist Margaret Kinnaird was studying the monkeys. Kinnaird needed a Kenyan field assistant; Kahumbu got the job, and spent six months in the forest. “I was in heaven,” she told me. “I was a girl in my twenties living in a tent in the bush. My mother was very unhappy about it, but I had a great time.” The experience was also a wake-up call. Kenya’s elephants were being devastated by ivory poachers. “We’d hear the gunshots, and we’d find the carcasses in the forest,” Kahumbu said. “I guess we just normalized the dangers.”

With the surge in poaching, the late eighties were a crucial time for conservation in Kenya. Leakey became the head of the Kenya Wildlife Service, and instituted an aggressive program, firing ineffectual and corrupt officers and giving rangers who were attacked by poachers permission to respond with lethal force. In 1989, he had Kenya’s ivory stockpile—twelve tons of tusks, from hundreds of poached elephants—assembled and set on fire. The blaze made headlines around the world, enraging hunters and galvanizing conservationists. A few months later, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (cites) instituted a global ban on elephant ivory.

After finishing her master’s degree, in 1992, Kahumbu came to work with Leakey. “The ivory ban had just happened,” she recalled. “It was a time of great energy.” She had given birth a few months earlier to a boy named Josh. The baby’s father was a Kenyan man, but Kahumbu is reserved about their relationship, saying only that she had planned to marry him but finally resolved to raise Josh by herself. “Richard never took any notice of my personal relationships,” she said. “But I think he was terrified I’d get married off and be yet another girl lost to science.”

At K.W.S., Kahumbu led the national-park system, but she wasn’t in the job for long. Shortly after she arrived, Leakey crashed his single-engine Cessna as he flew to the town of Naivasha, and lost both legs to amputation. Blaming the crash on sabotage ordered by corrupt officials, he quit his job in January, 1994, and Kahumbu left soon afterward, entering a doctoral program at Princeton.

Jimmy Lemara the manager of Porini Mara Camp one of two safari camps in Ol Kinyei Conservancy.
Jimmy Lemara, the manager of Porini Mara Camp, one of two safari camps in Ol Kinyei Conservancy.Photograph by Khadija Farah for The New Yorker

For eight years, she shuttled between New Jersey and Kenya, where she studied a group of elephants that lived in a lowland forest called Shimba Hills. She became concerned that cites was already reconsidering its ivory ban, under pressure from China. The committee’s next conference was scheduled to take place in Kenya in 2000—but the body’s major decisions tended to be made by Western countries. African delegations, which were often inexperienced and undertrained, had little input. Taking a leave of absence from Princeton, Kahumbu began working to strengthen Kenya’s cites delegation. She put together a sizable team, “trained in everything from botany to spiders.” The ban remained in place.

Kahumbu fell into storytelling almost by accident. After she finished her doctorate, a Kenyan cement company hired her to oversee the rehabilitation of defunct limestone quarries near the Indian Ocean coast. For four years, she and Josh lived in a house on a beach, as she turned the old quarries into sanctuaries for oryx, eland, and hippos. “They were little Edens,” she said.

In 2004, Kahumbu brought an orphaned baby hippo to her reserve, and, with no other place to keep it, put it in a pen with a hundred-and-thirty-year-old giant tortoise. Overnight, the little hippo, Owen, and the tortoise, Mzee, became inseparable, swimming, eating, and sleeping together. Kahumbu got a Kenyan newspaper to publish a photo of the two, and was soon deluged with inquiring e-mails—“as many as a thousand a day,” she said. She started a blog narrated by the zookeeper, a Kenyan man named Stephen. In time, the blog grew into a photo book, “Owen and Mzee,” which sold more than a million copies.

By 2007, Leakey had helped found a conservation organization called WildlifeDirect, and he asked Kahumbu to join him. The country’s wildlife populations were plummeting. “We looked at what was working and what wasn’t working in Kenyan conservation, and we realized that the courts weren’t punishing poachers adequately,” she told me. She set up a team to monitor the courts, where poachers were typically let off with small fines, and she used her access to the media to advocate for tougher implementation of laws. After two years, Leakey made Kahumbu the organization’s C.E.O. (He retired in 2017 to devote himself to new projects, notably raising funds for a somewhat pharaonic museum dedicated to East Africa’s ecology and its status as a birthplace of prehistoric man.)

In 2013, during an alarming surge in poaching, Kahumbu wrote an op-ed urging the public to do more to protect elephants. Margaret Kenyatta, Kenya’s First Lady, took an interest. (Kenyatta was surely aware that the former First Lady—her mother-in-law, Ngina—had been accused of joining a ring that smuggled elephant ivory in a government plane, a charge that she denies.) With her support, Kahumbu led a campaign called Hands Off Our Elephants, and began to organize a series of increasingly popular marches. “We now have thousands of people come,” Kahumbu said. “They say, ‘It’s the one thing I can do for the elephants.’ ”

Kahumbu became convinced that there was an “untapped desire among young Kenyans to do something about conservation.” She talked a Kenyan TV channel into airing a documentary about poaching, and then a weekly show about conservation. To fill the airtime, she asked the owners of documentaries that had been broadcast in the U.S. and the U.K. for the rights to show their films; the resulting series, “NTV Wild,” was promoted by Leakey.

John Tekeles the head of a K9 unit at Ol Pejeta Conservancy takes Malaika a bloodhound trained to track poachers on an...
John Tekeles, the head of a K9 unit at Ol Pejeta Conservancy, takes Malaika, a bloodhound trained to track poachers, on an exercise.Photograph by Khadija Farah for The New Yorker

Eventually, Kahumbu devised the idea for a show about Kenya’s conservation heroes, and secured funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development, Wild Lives Foundation, and the National Geographic Society. By the end of the first season, fifty-one per cent of Kenya’s television audience reported having watched “Wildlife Warriors.” The series was also picked up by a Nigerian network called EbonyLife TV, which broadcast it throughout Africa.

Kahumbu moved back into her childhood house two years ago, but, when I visited, she still seemed mostly to be camping out there. The hallway was cluttered with hiking boots and duffelbags; the dining table, which functions as her command center, was strewn with maps and books. There were a few signs of domesticity. Kahumbu showed me her vegetable garden, and introduced me to her three dogs, which include a cheerful, decrepit eighteen-year-old she inherited from a previous landlady. Most of the time, though, she is on the road, scouting locations or filming episodes.

Kahumbu travels in a small convoy of safari vehicles built for viewing wildlife, along with two cameramen, a soundman, and several drivers, as well as her field producer, Yoko Seki, an amiable, pragmatic Japanese woman who grew up in Kenya and has been her friend since high school. On long drives, Kahumbu relaxes by studying nature manuals, trying to match pictures of species she has spotted. Curiosity can take precedence over haste: she frequently asks the drivers to stop so that she can photograph a flower or an unusual bird, interrogating whomever she can find about its properties and local name. In areas with cell-phone service, Kahumbu returns to work, calling allies around the country. During a recent drive, I listened as she mobilized resistance to highway crews who planned to uproot a sacred fig tree, and agitated against a government proposal to erect a fence in the last open section of Nairobi National Park.

In one exchange, Kahumbu expressed outrage over an event that Kenya’s wildlife-and-tourism minister had announced for World Rhino Day. Out of five scheduled speakers, there were two Black people and not a single woman. “This kind of thing incenses me,” she said. “I happen to know several Black Kenyan women who know more about rhinos than some of these invitees.” As our car rumbled over an uneven dirt road, she texted one of the white participants and demanded to know why he had agreed to attend. Tersely, she pointed out that she had a policy against speaking at any conference in which she was the only Black person or the only woman, because she saw it as “intentional tokenism.” Kahumbu told him that he should decline the invitation, then peered at her phone. “He told me he would ask them to reconsider,” she said.

Growing up, Kahumbu says, she was “color-blind.” Her family rarely encountered the white former colonials who made up much of the country’s élite—a rowdy, insular group known as the Kenya Cowboys. Her father, a civil engineer, and her mother, who taught kindergarten at a private school, associated with a progressive crowd. “We went to a school where there were lots of mixed families,” Kahumbu recalled. “My mother was respected by Africans, and she also had white friends, who were usually in mixed marriages, too.”

Her parents had met, in the late fifties, at a tennis court in London. Her father was studying engineering, and her mother, who came from the Hereford countryside, was working toward an agriculture diploma. Their romance was swift. “She sent a telegram to her parents that she was getting married the next day to a man called John,” Kahumbu said. “They didn’t know till the wedding that he was an African.”

In northern Kenya young people are working with the conservation group Action for Cheetahs to preserve cheetah...
In northern Kenya, young people are working with the conservation group Action for Cheetahs to preserve cheetah populations in the area.Photograph by Khadija Farah for The New Yorker

Kahumbu’s English grandparents did not reject the union, but British society was less accepting. Her parents had four children in quick succession, and found themselves shunned by landlords. A pattern developed: Kahumbu’s mother made rental agreements, and then, when the family showed up, landlords broke the agreements and gave them a month to move out. The family couldn’t return to Kenya, because colonial laws prohibited mixed marriages. With independence, though, the laws were struck down, and they moved to Kenya the next year. Paula was born in 1966, the family’s sixth child.

Kahumbu says that she didn’t experience racism until she went to college in England. “I had a cute British boyfriend,” she told me. “One day, we were walking down the street, and somebody spat at my feet. At first, I didn’t realize why they had done that. Then I went to visit his family. They lived in Surrey, and were very proper people, and during our visit his mother made it quite clear that our relationship was not going anywhere.”

When Kahumbu arrived in Florida, to begin her master’s degree, she had an experience of discrimination that recalled her parents’ in England. She called a real-estate agent who was advertising apartments, and he described a selection of available units. “When I went to see him, he said they were full,” she said. “I got some friends of mine, whites, to call and go see him, and they were told there were vacant units. So I took him to court. He ended up having to pay my rent for a year.” Kahumbu had won, but she was dismayed by how her American peers reacted when they learned about it. “They weren’t surprised at all,” she recalled. “They had normalized that behavior.”

Almost despite her instincts, Kahumbu’s work in wildlife conservation has taken on a racial dimension. Traditionally, most of Kenya’s private conservation ventures, as well as the safari business, have been dominated by whites. Even wildlife films have tended to be presented by whites and aimed at white audiences. “Africa is always seen through the lens of a Western person—usually a white male, an expert—viewing our wildlife with awe,” Kahumbu said. “Chimpanzee,” perhaps the highest-grossing nature documentary ever released in the United States, is narrated by Tim Allen, famous for starring in the sitcom “Home Improvement.” It contains no Black people, or people of any kind, except for a sequence that rolls behind the credits, showing the crew members and naturalists who worked on the film—all of whom are evidently white. “To find Africans in wildlife documentaries who have a leading role is almost impossible,” Kahumbu said. “Most also don’t focus on Africans’ relationships to nature, and so my program aims to show Africans how we have always been related to it. We’ve always had our own belief systems, and we don’t necessarily need to import European ideas to save it.”

While Kahumbu is trying to mend the racial divide, others are more confrontational. The carnivore ecologist Mordecai Ogada has drawn attention by campaigning against what he calls “white colonialist” control of wildlife tourism and conservation. Ogada is a compelling speaker and a forceful presence on social media; in 2016, he co-authored a book, “The Big Conservation Lie: The Untold Story of Wildlife Conservation in Kenya,” with John Mbaria, a Kenyan journalist. On the cover, a beefy white man enjoys a cigar and a glass of brandy, while a native woman stoops over in labor; antelopes graze in the distance. “Coarsely speaking, the current white paradigm is that African wildlife is in danger, and the problem is that African people don’t love the animals like white people do,” Ogada explained in an interview promoting the book. “I would like to see a model where Black people are treated as the true custodians of the wildlife with which they share their lands and are intellectual participants in the discourse around this wildlife. That would be the Black paradigm, one in which white people are most welcome to participate.” In December, I asked Ogada what changes could be made to involve more Black Africans in conservation. “Your question betrays the problem,” he replied. “Why do you think we weren’t involved in conservation before, and how do you think wildlife survived before the white saviors came?”

Kahumbu makes some of the same arguments. “Anyone who is not building local capacity—training local people, elevating them, getting them into positions of responsibility—is basically deluding themselves,” she told me. But she regards Ogada’s language as unproductive. “Ogada is exposing problems that need to be addressed, but he attributes them all to whites and colonialism,” she said. “He is allergic to white people.” (She told me she suspects that he doesn’t regard her as a “real Black Kenyan,” because her mother was white.) Kahumbu argues that there are not enough resources devoted to conservation to allow for excluding anyone. “Wildlife numbers are plummeting across the continent without the buy-in of Africans,” she said. “My bottom line on this issue of the apparent racial divide in conservation is that we cannot really complain if we are not taking action. We must be the catalysts for the change we want to see.”

Kenya has twentythree national parks but the habitat they offer is not enough to sustain the countrys animals. Giraffes...
Kenya has twenty-three national parks, but the habitat they offer is not enough to sustain the country’s animals. Giraffes are endangered, as are lions, cheetahs, hyenas, and wild dogs.Photograph by Khadija Farah for The New Yorker

In September, during the United Nations General Assembly, President Uhuru Kenyatta stood before an international environmental forum and pledged to “set nature on the right path of zero biodiversity loss.” Kahumbu was pleased that he had made a promise she could hold him to, but skeptical that much would change. “A very powerful statement,” she said. “At the same time, there are many developments going on in Kenya, which are causing massive destruction.”

One of Kahumbu’s most visible battles involves Nairobi National Park, which has provided a haven around the capital since its creation, as Kenya’s first national park, in 1946. The park, now separated from the city on three sides by an electrified fence, no longer has free-roaming rhinos, but it still has some lions and leopards; if you fly into the city’s main airport, you can usually spot antelopes, giraffes, and zebras from the plane. In 2019, the park was bisected by a sixty-foot-high elevated bridge, to accommodate the Nairobi-to-Naivasha railway, part of a multibillion-dollar network built by the Chinese to replace the one erected by the colonial British.

Kahumbu argued that the placement of the railway was deliberate. “It could have gone around the park, rather than through it,” she said. “It was done to send a message that development comes first, nature comes second.” The line was intended to run to Kampala, about a hundred and thirty miles beyond the border with Uganda. Instead, it stops two hours past Nairobi, in an area that President Kenyatta has designated as a future industrial hub.

Even if Kenyatta wants to effect change, Kahumbu said, “there is a big problem, in terms of the President’s ability to push the ministers to adopt what he is saying.” Last year, after the government proposed building a private lodge and a tree-canopy walk inside Nairobi National Park, Kahumbu warned on Kenyan television that the construction would harm the park’s leopards and birds. “We don’t need a hotel in the middle of Nairobi National Park,” she said contemptuously. Around the same time, a music festival was held inside another national park, near a fragile colony of nesting birds, despite Kahumbu’s attempts to get a court order to stop it. Not long afterward, Kahumbu found herself denied entry at the country’s national parks.

Kahumbu knows that other conservationists have suffered far worse. Over the years, more than seventy rangers have been killed in gun battles with poachers; hundreds more have been wounded. Kenya’s tiny community of white conservationists has also suffered attacks. In 2018, Esmond Bradley Martin, an American who led investigations into the ivory trade, was tortured and stabbed to death in his home in Nairobi. The year before, Pokot tribesmen, apparently encouraged by land-hungry politicians, torched a safari lodge owned by the Italian-born conservationist Kuki Gallmann. Gallmann was shot in the stomach but survived after emergency surgery. In 2006, the conservationist Joan Root was killed at home by several men carrying Kalashnikovs. Not all of these murders were politically motivated. Kenya is a violent place, where people share news of crimes the way the British talk about the weather. But few crimes are ever solved, and the country’s notoriously corrupt police, as well as politicians, are often suspected of involvement.

Perhaps the most prominent conservationist to die in Kenya was George Adamson, who spent decades reintegrating captive lions into the wild. Adamson became internationally famous in the movie “Born Free,” from 1966, and was later the subject of a series of documentaries. In 1980, his wife, Joy, was killed at a remote camp. Nine years later, Adamson himself was gunned down by bandits, known as shifta, who had crossed the border from Somalia.

On the road Kahumbu frequently asks her driver to stop so that she can photograph an unusual bird or flower...
On the road, Kahumbu frequently asks her driver to stop so that she can photograph an unusual bird or flower, interrogating whomever she can find about its properties and local name.Photograph by Khadija Farah for The New Yorker

A couple of hundred miles northeast of Nairobi, I visited Adamson’s old camp, with his protégé Tony Fitzjohn. Fitz, as he is known, is a lean, wry man in his mid-seventies, whose torso and back are hatched with scars from a lion mauling. He arrived in Kenya from England in the late sixties, looking for trouble. He spent much of the next two decades working with Adamson in Kora, a dry triangle of scorpion-infested wilderness, bounded by the Tana River as it flows to the Indian Ocean. On the dirt track to their old camp, Fitz pointed out the spot where Adamson was killed. That day, Adamson had heard gunshots, and set out in his Land Rover to investigate. He came across a group of shifta raping one of his guests, who had driven out to the camp’s airstrip to meet other visitors. Adamson revved his truck at them, firing his pistol, and they shot back with AK-47s. “The world suddenly became, and remains, a smaller and harsher place,” Fitz told me.

Fitz spent the years after Adamson’s death in Tanzania, where the government had charged him with restoring wildlife to a poached-out valley southeast of Mt. Kilimanjaro. He brought the valley back to life, and also raised funds for a black-rhino sanctuary, but in 2019 he was eased out by the Tanzanian government, which was eager to take over the valley’s operation.

Fitz returned to Kenya, intent on restoring Kora. He found the area increasingly overrun by Somalis. Some were traditional herders, partisans in a territorial squabble that long predated the colonial border. Others were Al Shabaab—Islamist insurgents armed with assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades. A small contingent of K.W.S. rangers had been installed after Adamson’s murder, but, with sparse funding and not enough fuel for their vehicles, they are little more than a symbolic deterrent. In 2015, Shabaab gunmen stormed a college dormitory in Garissa, a few hours by jeep from Kora, and murdered a hundred and forty-two students.

In the eighties, Fitz said, there were leopards and elephants and large families of hippos on the Tana River; he and Adamson had to take precautions when hiking, because rhinos roamed everywhere. But we saw little wildlife in Kora—just a few waterbuck, some of the tiny antelope known as dik-dik, and a handful of baboons. Instead, there were camels everywhere, watched over by Somali herders who hid whenever we approached. Along the riverbank, the herders had created rangeland by cutting and burning groves of trees. There were no hippos at all.

One afternoon, Fitz took me to where George Adamson and several of his lions lay buried side by side. Adamson’s tombstone had been smashed; shards were strewn among the mounds of rocks that people piled on graves to keep hungry animals from digging up the bodies. Fitz gestured at the thorn thicket around us and pointed to his ear: listen. From all around, I could hear the sound of camels grazing, the bells clanking around their necks.

Afew weeks after Paula Kahumbu’s trip to the Loitas, I accompanied her on a “recce” to find heroes for new episodes. Our first destination was a cheetah-research camp in northern Kenya, in the hot, dry lands of the Samburu people. We drove twelve hours from Nairobi, leaving the highway for dirt roads that snake for hundreds of miles through bushland before receding into desert around Lake Turkana. This was where Leakey’s paleontological teams had made some of their most profound discoveries, including the nearly complete skeleton of a prehistoric human, 1.5 million years old, who became known as Turkana Boy.

Kahumbu pointed to a distant massif: one of the mountains she had climbed during the expedition that had redirected her life when she was sixteen. Except for a line of pylons that marched across the wilderness, to carry power from a wind farm near Lake Turkana, no development was visible. We travelled past Samburu camps, with rounded huts protected from predators by fences made of cut thornbush. Here and there, lone men carrying spears tended to flocks of white goats.

In an area known as Meibae, we arrived at a camp on an arid hillside, set up by the private conservation group Action for Cheetahs in Kenya. A half-dozen team members lived there, near a small outpost of K.W.S. rangers. They had set up camera traps and brought in trained sniffer dogs, who helped them search for scat and for other signs of cheetahs. But there were not many to be found.

“There are less than a thousand cheetahs left in Kenya,” Kahumbu said. “But very few people seem to know they are endangered. People often confuse them with leopards, which are nocturnal and actually better able to survive.” For the past decade, Action for Cheetahs had monitored the cats’ decline in Kenya, as they were devastated by human encroachment. Recently, the team had closed down a field study near Nairobi National Park, after most of the cheetahs they were monitoring were killed by vehicles as they crossed the highway. “Basically, there was no point in continuing their work there, because there were no cheetahs left,” Kahumbu said glumly.

In Meibae, we spoke with a Samburu elder, a woman with a shaved head and an ornate array of beaded collars and silver anklets. When she was young, she said, there were giraffes and rhinos all around, but her children had never seen them. Cheetahs, too, had been ubiquitous, and it was considered a blessing if a cheetah ate one of your goats. Nowadays, the cheetahs had almost nothing but Samburu goats to eat, so they were regarded as pests. More often than not, people wanted to kill them.

We saw no signs of cheetahs during our three-day visit—even though the Action for Cheetahs team leader, Cosmas Wambua, a genial Kenyan scientist in his forties, assured us that they were around. One afternoon, Cosmas arranged for his team to meet local teen-agers. He brought along a soccer ball and a volleyball, both emblazoned with a cheetah’s face, and joined in a soccer game, playing fast and hard with the kids. Afterward, cooling off under a shade tree, everyone sat and talked about cheetahs. A young man, dressed in brilliantly colored blankets and waving a swagger stick, spoke about how his generation of Samburu had come to understand the importance of cheetahs. The teen-agers also hoped to do something with their lives besides grazing goats: one girl wanted to be a teacher, another a lawyer; a third, giggling with embarrassment, said that she wanted to be a d.j.

Kahumbu left Meibae feeling doubtful. “It was a bit daunting not even to see a cheetah,” she said, as we drove south. “I’m having to rethink the episode, because we may not have a single cheetah on film.” She tried to design her shows to end with a triumph, she told me: “We want to see the payoff at the end, the success.” Now it seemed remote. Perhaps she could wrap the episode around the Samburu elder. Or maybe Lulu, a young woman who was one of the team’s sniffer-dog handlers. As she considered possibilities, her mood lifted. “Cosmas will be the hero,” she said. “He’s charismatic, hardworking, funny, a beautiful leader—and he’s super knowledgeable and has a master’s degree. He can help by showing us how this area could be revitalized, turned into a modern conservancy, where the young Samburus can be trained to do other jobs, rather than merely herders like their parents.”

As we climbed onto the Laikipia plateau, our cell-phone signal returned, and Kahumbu began fielding calls. There was disturbing news from the Chyulu Hills conservation area. In a wildlife corridor connecting to Amboseli National Park, a crucial conduit for elephants, work crews had arrived, bearing a government permit; they had sunk two wells, cleared a large area of bush with bulldozers, and fenced the perimeter, to make way for a commercial avocado farm. Kahumbu made frantic calls to find out more. Any permit would have been obtained through bribery, she guessed, because the area was designated for conservation. But the main wildlife conservancies in the area had not yet filed a lawsuit. She suspected that the owners were afraid.

Another call brought more bad news. Rob and Sarah O’Meara had been threatened with eviction from the Loitas, by a government official who accused them of illegally logging cedar and airlifting it out by helicopter. It was a ludicrous accusation, but the O’Mearas would have to fight to be allowed to stay. In the meantime, they could only hope that Parmuat and their other Maasai allies could continue to protect the ancient forest. Kahumbu tried to remain upbeat. “There is a way of turning things around,” she told me. “We got independence by arguing our point, didn’t we? So of course things can change.” 


Please follow and like us: